May 03, 2021 8 min read

Some topics of real concerns regarding the oceans and fisheries were raised in the “documentary,” but unfortunately the entire piece was filled with sensationalistic journalism, not backed by real science. The data on which the filmmaker based his shocking claims was either dated, over-exagerated, or just plain made up. The “experts” referenced in the film were extremists, whose data is borderline quackery…

I can’t speak to every subject that was touched on in the piece, but as a biologist that worked nearly 10 years in marine aquaculture, and a veteran of over 30 years in the fresh tuna business, many of those years working specifically with bluefin tuna, there are a few glaring “facts” that were brought up that need to be clarified:

“A bluefin tuna is sold for 3 MILLION dollars in Japan.” Time and time again the “million dollar tuna” is publicized, promoting the MYTH that bluefin tuna are being fished out of our world’s oceans by greedy Japanese fishermen…it’s stereotyping and insulting.

For the record, ONE bluefin tuna, ONE day of the year--January 1st, is ceremoniously “bid up” in the Tokyo fish auction to an outrageous price. In Japanese culture the New Year is the most important holiday of the year. The reasoning behind this tradition is that “if the first tuna of the year is sold for a high price, we’ll have high prices for the rest of the year,” and sets the tone for the rest of the year. Similarly, in Japanese households, they put out the best spread of food on the New Year (eat well on the 1st, eat well the rest of the year...). BUT unfortunately over and over again this cool tradition of pricing the New Year’s “chosen” bluefin tuna is distorted and extrapolated by groups with an agenda against fishing, and frankly—against Asians.

“Bluefin tuna have been fished to near extinction, and are at only 3% of their natural capacity.” This is misleading and OLD NEWS. In truth, the recovery of bluefin tuna stocks worldwide has become a fisheries success story.

The latest news from the International Scientific Committee, (ISC) the world’s premier authority on tuna fisheries, at the current rate of recovery, the 2020 stock assessment of Northern Pacific Bluefin:

  • There is 100% assurance Pacific Bluefin will have reached sustainability (20% SSB*) in 2024, and likely will reach this important benchmark already in 2021.
  • There is 100% assurance this same fishery will reach “unfished” levels by 2034, and likely to reach this goal by 2026. “UNFISHED” levels—meaning a virgin ocean before any tuna in the ocean were caught…

TERMINOLOGY

Also, to be accurate, the 3% mentioned in the piece refers to the *Spawning Stock Biomass, or SSB, which represent adult individuals that can mate, reproduce, and create offspring for future generations. It does NOT represent the total biomass of bluefin tuna in the ocean. As a reference, scientists consider a 20% SSB as a healthy benchmark, a sustainable makeup of spawning age adults among the total biomass by which many of the commercial tuna species such as yellowfin tuna, skipjack tuna, bigeye tuna, and bluefin tuna are measured.

PURE JOURNALISTIC SENSATIONALISM

In any case, within my circle of knowledge and expertise, the filmmaker basically used provenly false claims as his basis of “fact,” and then made wild leaps of extrapolation—or in some instances, just makes stuff up, to reach stunning conclusions to shock and impress/mislead the public. Having a science background and worked as a marine biologist in commercial aquaculture since the 1980s, I have first-hand experience in seeing good and bad examples of wild capture, aquaculture, marine mammal protection, and IUU,. Unfortunately throughout the piece the same formula was used—take superficial and examples of the worst case scenario, and generalize these horrendous acts as the “standard” in all of the seafood and aquaculture industry. It is very misleading to say the least.

From >40 years of working in the seafood industry, there is one principle I go by, and have taught my children: QUALITY is where it’s at. Good quality seafood is worth a lot, and poor quality seafood is unappetizing, gets people sick, and is worth nothing. In fact, in all of business and in life (especially in seafood), good quality products, work, and services last, whereas faulty and unethical practices never last. In many ways it’s a self-regulated industry. I often say, “you have to 20 things right out of 20 to be successful in this business.” It is literally impossible to produce quality seafood time after time if you don’t practice sustainable methods, and pay fair wages to your workers.

Without a doubt there are issues in all that the filmmaker brings up, but BY NO MEANS do they represent the wild and farmed seafood industry practices as a whole.

BLUEFIN TUNA—A FISHERY MANAGEMENT SUCCESS STORY

TIMELINE AND THE HISTORY OF THE RECOVERY OF BLUEFIN TUNA STOCKS WORLDWIDE—THE FACTS

  • In the past Bluefin tuna WERE being overfished worldwide, reaching perilously low numbers going into 2004-2009, as indicated in “Seaspriracy.” There was a “gold rush” of sorts happening in the relatively new bluefin tuna ranching industry, where wild bluefin are captured live, kept in ocean pens, fed and fattened, then harvested and sold in prime condition. where the highly-prized “toro” being paid handsome prices in the Japanese auction.
  • Beginning in 2007, the alarms went off amongst all parties interested in bluefin tuna. Scientists, NGOs, and the fishing industry itself reacted by up to 70% reduction in capture, FULL TRACEABILITY, requiring ICCAT documents for each and every bluefin tna caught and exported from any country in the world.
  • Coupled with all the measures being taken to protect bluefins, the Great Recession beginning in the fall of 2007 through almost 2010 caused a dramatic decrease in price for the prized bluefin, down to a third of the pre-recession prices. Nearly ALL bluefin ranches worldwide went out of business, or barely survived. Even to this day the prices have never climbed up to even half the values from the past.
  • Bluefin tuna mature in 5 years, and each female can spawn tens of millions of eggs. Fast-forward 15 years, by leaving so much of the world’s bluefins unfished for nearly three generations, the repopulation of bluefin tuna in the world has been phenomenal. As mentioned in Seaspiracy, a well-managed fishery CAN recover to abundant stocks.
  • The most abundant population of Pacific Bluefin Tuna in 50 years. Currently, the sheer quantities of bluefin off Mexico and California have never been seen since the 1950’s through 1970’s.

To give you an idea of the relative abundance and health of the stock of ranched Pacific bluefin from which Prime Time Seafood, and Riviera Seafood Club are supplied:

  • In 2006 there were approximately 11 bluefin ranching companies/concessions, each operating separate farms with a “suggested” total quota for the industry of 10,000 metric tons. Bluefin started “running” as early as April-May, halfway down the Baja California peninsula, and they would migrate north up through northern Baja, California, and by the fall months could be off of Northern California and even Oregon. It took the Mexican ranching industry 3-4 months of fishing, involving upwards of 15 giant purse seiners, to catch 8,000 metric tons of bluefin weighing 10-40 kilos. The tuna fishing effort to fill the cages started in June and lasted through August.
  • For the past 4-5 seasons, bluefin tuna are found YEAR ROUND off the coasts of Mexico and California, and all Mexican ranches operate under a strict 3,000 metric ton quota. The fishing season starts in the first days of January, and lasts 2 WEEKS. The sizes range from 30-200 kilos, the average capture size over the past 3 years has been 70-90 kilos per fish.

Sportsfishing in California and Mexico have also been experiencing by far the best bluefin tuna fishing in decades.

WHALES AND DOLPHINS

As a biologist involved in the tuna industry, there is OVERWHELMING history and evidence that through Marine Mammal Protection programs that have been in place since the 1970s, whale, dolphin, and sea loin populations have been growing for decades. Contrary to the film, nearly all pelagic dolphin species stocks are healthy.

  • The common practice of dolphins dying as bycatch in tuna nets ended back in the 1970s with the advent of the “backdown” procedure—that allows dolphins captured together with tuna schools escape from the net, and 100% observer coverage, which has been the standard in the tuna industry--worldwide for decades. Again, this is OLD NEWS. I have many colleagues who are lifelong tuna biologists in charge of tuna observer programs throughout Latin America. The claim the filmmaker makes that all observers fear for their lives is nonsense.

    To claim dolphins are being killed in great numbers by tuna purse seiners is not only patently untrue, but it’s a slap in the face to thousands of dedicated tuna biologists, observers, tuna captains, deckhands, processors and distributors that have been maintaining the balance of sustainability of the fishery with the livelihoods of millions of people that depend on the ocean for their way of life.
  • Likewise, the world’s whale populations have thrived over the past decades. Current whaling operations are a FRACTION of what they once were. The harvest of pilot whales depicted in the film, as barbaric and shocking as shown, takes place in very, very, select places in the world. Whaling is a relic of the past will never come back. By no means is there a massive active whale fishery in the world.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Yes, as the film says, let’s follow the money.

In regards to bluefin tuna, the price of fresh, sashimi-qualty bluefin tuna has maintained at historically low levels since post Recession. The reason for that is simple: there is more supply than demand. At the same time there has been phenomenally strong rebuilding of the wild stock of bluefin tuna worldwide, due to extraordinary efforts from all parties involved.

Extremist environmental groups survive on donations. Donations from well-meaning people who are passionate about nature and the oceans. But the heartstrings and pocketbooks of the public can only be opened when “the sky’s falling…” The sky is NOT falling in regards to the future of fisheries and especially the future of aquaculture.

In reality, MANY of the world’s fisheries have been well-managed for many years—tuna being one of them.

Also, the resiliency of the fishes in our oceans can be quite astounding. Many fisheries have been properly managed from the brink of collapse. That is the power of many species like tuna, sardine, and other species that spawn millions of eggs. Unlike the film’s depiction of tigers and pandas, a panda does not spawn 10 million eggs…

The film focused on less than 5% of the wild fishery and aquaculture producers of the world, the worst offenders—to purposely produce a shocking piece of sensationalist journalism to create fear and hatred.

In the end, MY MESSAGE, from a seafood and aquaculture industry professional, is that like ALL the foods we chose to eat, I suggest you investigate the sources, the farms, the processors, the ingredients. As in most food industries, there are a majority of good players and a few bad players. Do your homework, or buy from purveyors that study and vet their sources.

What a travesty to purposely misrepresent a whole way of life for millions and millions of people throughout the world—people who CARE about the oceans, and have spent years, decades, lifetimes on the water, in TRUE dedication to the sea and the world.


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